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Bill McCormick, S.J.October 17, 2022
A woman prays as she faces a U.S. flag on a perimeter fenceA woman prays as she faces a U.S. flag on the perimeter fence at the ReAwaken America Tour at Cornerstone Church in Batavia, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For many students of Western history, the “church and state” question might seem to be ancient history. For some Catholics, however, its status is as lively as it has been in a century.

One of the greatest Catholic minds of our time (and one of my former professors), Russell Hittinger, gave a speech on Oct. 6 that defines the terms of the debate today. At the gathering, sponsored by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, Dr. Hittinger offered a powerful message for Catholics today: Christ brought about a separation, rather than integration, of the spiritual and political.

“The term separation, rather than integral, is a first-order term,” Dr. Hittinger said. “If instead integrality is made a first premise, one is almost guaranteed to make mistakes. We first need to understand what it means to be set apart. Only then can we understand what is or is not integral.”

Integralism is a rejection of liberalism and particularly its separation of politics from religion.

The family of terms around the word “integral” matters because of the claims of some for a unity of political and religious authority, a recent instantiation of a centuries-old argument called “integralism.” Integralism, for those new to the conversation, is an interpretation of Catholic teaching that advocates for the direct subordination of political authority to the church. It has taken many forms over the centuries, including many with robust neo-scholastic theologies of grace. Much of the most recent instantiation of the integralist argument has been condensed in the website The Josias, which offers this three-sentence summary of the concept:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

As is clear, integralism is a rejection of liberalism and particularly its separation of politics from religion. Thinkers from many strands of Catholicism, however, criticize this aspect of liberalism. In other words, it is not enough simply to reject integralism as illiberal, as too many of its critics do.

Thankfully, Dr. Hittinger offered no such cheap shots. For Dr. Hittinger, the problem with integralism is fundamentally Christological. Christ does not offer humans order and justice, temporal progress or prosperity. He offers humans rather a share in a kingdom not of this world. And this kingdom can only be had by supernatural faith, a faith in the Incarnation and in the Resurrection, which thus passes through the Passion and the Mysterium Crucis.

The church has a divine origin and a divine end. It exists not through natural means but through grace.

There is a disconnect between the goods that the temporal authority offers and that offered by the church. Indeed, just as salvation is supernatural, so too the church is supernatural. Dr. Hittinger again:

It is difficult not to think of the Church as the highest region of a single society—perhaps as an international one for the progressives, and often a national one for conservatives. This is understandable, but wrong. The Church here below is set aside, separated, sanctified—as Thomas insisted, what is holy is always separated (Summa Theologica II-II 81.8). Therefore the word integral is not fit to do the work of describing the Kingdom vis-a-vis the temporal powers. To attempt to do so puts us into trouble even before we start.

In other words, the church is not simply one worldly institution among others. It is qualitatively different from them. It has a divine origin and a divine end. It exists not through natural means but through grace. In other words, it is a sacrament.

Yes, the Christian community as ecclesia has institutional features. But to reduce it to a coercive power with responsibility for religion is to miss the kingdom promised by God. This is part of the peril of integralism, a danger going back to medieval Augustinianism: to treat the church as a jurisdictional authority of the same sort as political authority, so as to relate it to that authority. For then one has already conceded the terms of the debate to totalizing visions of politics, as though nothing transcended politics.

When the sense of this distinction is lost, then Christianity tends to degenerate into civil religion, or the instrumentalization of the faith for political purposes.

Paganism redux?

Dr. Hittinger has been criticized for being an “indifferentist,” meaning indifferent to the fate of religion. This charge lacks merit, but it matters because it identifies one of the primary fears of leading integralists. As Dr. Hittinger argues, however, the great threat to Christianity is not indifference, but resurgent paganism. And integralism is at risk of fostering it.

“Paganism” seems like a dramatic term, but it amounts to treating the religious and political as commensurate terms: Without the Christian sense of transcendence, religion and politics become intermingled. When St. Augustine criticizes Christians in The City of God, Dr. Hittinger notes, he primarily does so on the grounds that they conceive of the Christian God as one whose primary function is to protect the city. Such political functionalism is paganism.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers a powerful account of how Christianity opposes paganism, but also why paganism remains a recurring possibility. In his neglected De Regno, Aquinas argues that Christianity’s primary political effect is twofold: the distinction between the temporal and spiritual, and the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal.

This is a major development from pre-Christian dispensations. Yet in most times and places, the spiritual and temporal have not been seen as distinct. They have been mixed together indiscriminately, which de facto typically means the spiritual serves the temporal. What is missing from such regimes is not only a proper understanding of the transcendent, but a proper practice of distinguishing it from and valorizing it about the temporal. When the sense of this distinction is lost, then Christianity tends to degenerate into civil religion, or the instrumentalization of the faith for political purposes. And as Christianity fades, that “faith” can take many forms.

The church/state question is always complicated by the mutability and contingency of political life and its forms.

The distinction between the temporal and spiritual is not only conceptual, but requires a historical achievement to exist in practice. And that achievement is always partial and reversible. Thus the great danger to Christianity is not indifference to religion; the danger lies in a reversal of its transcendence, leading to the collapse of the spiritual back into the temporal—and pretensions of politics to reach toward the eternal.

When Henri de Lubac, S.J., for example, looked around an increasingly de-Christianized Europe during the Second World War, he did not see apathy toward religion. Rather, he saw a profusion of ersatz “replacement” religions, including Nazism, seeking to fill the spiritual void. Father De Lubac’s later arguments against trends in post-conciliar theology that offered the church as a servant to temporal progress were motivated by a concern about Christianity being subordinated to and replaced by just such religions.

The church/state question is always complicated by the mutability and contingency of political life and its forms. As Dr. Hittinger notes, part of the danger of paganism is to forget that political regimes come and go, as he notes with Pope Leo XIII: “Unlike the Church founded by Christ, and marriage (both of which have divinely insculpted and fixed form and ends), political order has no fixed form. God the author of nature does not guarantee the perpetuity of a particular political form.”

The issue of contingency also runs into that of mortality. And this leads to one of Dr. Hittinger’s most powerful claims: “pagan integralism flows in part from the natural human desire for immortality run amok after sin.” Further, “the highest practical expression of the desire for immortality is to participate in political life,” he said.

Politics, after all, “outlasts the individual, the family and the tribe.” People are willing to die for their country, and many “will grieve the loss of their political society more than even the loss of their own lives. Political life is therefore the highest practical expression of achieving immortality that we accomplish ‘by ourselves.’”

Integralism, in other words, feeds the desire for immortality in a temporal reality. In treating the church as an institution in competition with political authority, it not only exposes the church to alliances with ephemeral constellations of power. It also encourages the belief that religion is not transcendent but a part of politics. But when religion is not viewed as transcendent, then human longings and desires get redirected in dangerously pathological ways.

Integralism’s challenge to liberalism

The threat of ersatz religions is as pervasive for liberalism as for integralism, of course, if not more. For that reason, the time has long passed for deeper self-reflection on the part of integralism’s liberal critics.

Modernity was once defined by its self-conscious novelty, but now it is better understood as a distinct sort of dissatisfaction. In his brilliant book on Spinoza and Tocqueville, The Democratic Soul, Aaron Herold details one of the greatest fears of critics of democracy: that it flattens souls, at best dampens ambition to do great things, and at worst forces those ambitions into dangerous back channels. Those dangers are all the more present when democracy is built on an attempt to restrict the ambit of religion, as is so on display in the proto-liberal theory of Hobbes and Spinoza, among others.

Any regime that refuses to countenance the transcendence of Christian faith will sooner or later seek to dragoon it for temporal ends.

In Tocqueville’s account, Christianity responds to a deep desire for immortality in humans. This desire shows itself in a paradoxical way: the desire to affirm oneself through self-sacrifice. Democracy, Tocqueville argues, seeks to train one’s focus on self-affirmation without self-sacrifice. Or, better, it trains self-sacrifice on self-affirmation; for instance, the American worker who devotes all of his time and energy to his work. But this is not a satisfactory arrangement, and Tocqueville thinks the desire for immortality will break out in violent, bizarre ways. Indeed, the spasms of religiosity will grow stranger the greater the distance from traditional religion.

Regardless of whether one buys into Tocqueville’s argument, there is no question that liberal democracy comes at a cost. Any regime that refuses to countenance the transcendence of Christian faith will sooner or later seek to dragoon it for temporal ends.

Ultimately one is left with paradox. The church is in the world but not of it. Salvation is social but personal. One must die to the world to attain eternal life.

As de Lubac writes in Paradoxes of Faith, the church/state question would be simpler if we could resolve it in favor of a particular institutional configuration. This is the proposal of integralism, of liberalism, and of so many -isms that treat this question as a problem of competing jurisdictions. But such a resolution would also be dangerously wrong.

The kingdom is not of this world, and its completion is a matter of eschatology, not politics. Christian faith leads to paradox because its tensions cannot be resolved in history by humans, but only at the end of history by its Lord. Thus de Lubac writes: “Only what is rooted is living. But taking root truly will often make you seem detached.”

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